*4pm He must be drunk, I thought. At about 40 paces, from behind & in the shade, it seemed most likely. Stumbling to the left. Left again. Suspended, suspended,,, & down. Face first. I moved in closer. And closer quickly as the shadows could no longer hide the situation.
Alone. Collapsed. Hungry. A young man not yet twenty. Desperate. So very. In a crawl space, west of an alley way that runs parallel to the world’s longest street, he was probing through bags of garbage for scraps. 40 degrees in late afternoon. Heaps of warmed, infested garbage, weeks old due to a city-wide strike that includes garbage collectors. Between the heat, the stench, the hunger & dehydration, all that kept him functioning disappeared,,, and he lay perched at a 45 degree angle, unconscious in rotting leftovers.
I moved him to level ground, downwind. A quick cell-phone call & half a bottle of water later, he was rushed away in the clean cool of an ambulance unit. All this,,, the ten minute encounter of strangers off Yonge Street.
*8pm Sarah Jane, nine, on my left. Jake, soon five, on my right. Bedtime books, chats, tickles & giggles before lights-out. Tonight Sarah Jane decided she wanted to be a zoo-keeper when she grows up. After a sweet explanation of all the why’s, Jake needed a turn. No surprise – Jake wants to be Spiderman when he grows up, so he can “catch real bad guys.” Amazing – I remember days wanting to be a zoo-keeper & spiderman too!
*mid-night In the quiet of the night, I am disturbed. Worlds apart in a few short hours. Surely the boy fainting in the garbage had wanted to be a zoo-keeper or Spiderman! Surely someone had cute pictures of him as a small, dream-filled boy. Surely he deserves better than to seek dining in garbage. Why him? Why not you or me? Surely Jesus died for him as much as He did for me. What to make of it all?
The youngest son of a hardworking blue-collar dad & a diligent church secretary mom, my adulthood has been filled with several moments with desperate people. Light years away from my simple, happy childhood – I have never seen God present, or the face of Jesus revealed anywhere like I have with those who have no home. My plea to you is that you love them as you are able. However you can. Even this day.
*7am I took out the kitchen garbage. Scraps & leftovers fit for no one. No one
“Maybe I should do it too.” The words penetrate like a knife.
Fourteen & a half years with extremely troubled youth – & never-ever more disturbed or shaken than by the words of 15 year old Grace. In 8 weeks I lost 4 teenagers to suicide this autumn. Grace was close to two of them, & knew all four. A dark, emotional journey that physically hurts, that wakes me in my sleep, that I cam barely speak of. Beautiful, frightened children,,, gone. Just gone.
“Only problem is,,, that’s what they’re remembered for,,, now, that’s what they’re all about. I don’t want that,” she continued. Her character defeats her distress one more day. Thank you God.
Eyes red & watery peering from under her long brown bangs, she raises her head & asks, “What are you all about?” I tilt my head as if to say – what do you mean?
“Not what you think you are all about,,, but what are you REALLY all about? Y’know, what do other people think you are all about?” Grace: homeless, alone, & brilliant beyond her years.
Hidden behind a big, white beard & bright red suit I watch 7 year old Taylor play with a blue train. Santa is smiling – but his heart is breaking. It’s December 9th, & the doctors don’t expect Taylor to make it to Christmas. My Santa gig today is with terminally ill kids & their families. Big entrance – done. Gifts given. Hugs & tickles – done. Now a few moments of young forgetful play while parents cry. In these surreal, quiet moments Santa closes his eyes. Experiencing the pain here draws reflection on the losses this past season, the tragedy of two of my dearest friends losing a sister, Sept. 11 grief,,, imagine, Santa Claus stolen by sadness. Then, like a gust of wind, from out of no where, the voice of a survivor rings in my head,,, “What are you all about?” A little homeless angel pulls Santa together. And we play, & play, & play. And every single moment feels priceless.
If a little homeless girl was standing in front of you this very moment, and expecting absolutely nothing from you, asked, “What are you all about?”,,, what would you say? What would your friends and family say you are all about? What would God say?
I started & stopped a few times before the truth rattled out,,, “I’m all about finding out what I’m all about.”
Grace closed her eyes & nodded,,, “Ya, me too.”
The only thing entirely clear to me was that Victor felt he had no where he belonged.
I had not known Victor long before new tragedy compounded his tragic life. He was as much a loner as I have ever met. Resistant of help and cold to encouragement. Waiting for nothing & seemingly hoping for less. Whatever stole his joy before the streets claimed him, stole it all.
Early morning on the second Tuesday of February. Early morning by the lake of minus 42 degrees celsius. Unbearable. Winding in panic. Moaning with fear. Victor’s eyes had frozen shut while he slept between two packing skids, that literally trapped the blowing snow and ice that had buried his head.
With two cups of warm water and the inside if my toque we freed his eyelids after ten minutes. Even then, in the frigid cold, with no sight, he was uncomfortable with my help. The end result was that he had permanent damage to his left eye, and now, at age 16, would be blind in one eye. One more giant hurdle in his young life.
I contacted his parents in small-town Northern Ontario. They were outraged by the inconvenience of needing to be involved. Bothered, angry, fed up – everything imaginable that opposed concern. When they met with the doctors, they refused to look at Victor, and spoke of him in-the-third-party, as though he wasn’t present. With great spite they claimed him though, and returned to where they live – which I refuse to call “home.”
Victor hung himself this week. He didn’t “belong” with family. Not with friends. Not at school. Not on the street. No one missed him when he was not there.
It is so easy to take for granted “belonging.” Welcomed. Appreciated. Cherished. Loved. It’s the glue of life, in every culture. It is the foundation to every vital relationship we possess. And still, even the best of us have our own mental short lists of who belongs. So easy to be guilty on all counts to the very crime we fear most.
I no longer even have moments to listen to the theological debates on suicide and life-after-death. But I have all the time in the world to believe in a God who can piece justice and mercy together, in a fashionable and uncomprehendable to mankind.
One who sees far beyond what you or I think we see. A Father who longs for His children to know they belong. Even One who will touch my broken heart.
In memory of my dear lost friend, Victor,,, won’t you make someone unlikely feel that they “belong”, today?
Snack finished. Teeth brushed. Hockey pajamas proudly in place. All ready for bed-time prayers. Four or five sentences in, my six year old son, Jake, prayed, “and let all the homeless people be okay tonight.” Then a long pause, and with one open eye peeking from behind little praying hands he asks, “Daddy, will they be okay now?”
My entire adult life committed to the notion that somehow we can help them be “okay,” and a lifetime of faith in God,,, and still I can not assure my precious little boy that it is so. “I do know God heard you, Jakey.”
Last week I sat at the foot of the bed of an unconscious 15 year old who attempted to take his life. Three days ago I spent the evening with two 14 year old girls, beaten by the pimps who control them. And last night I found a 17 year old boy I have been caring for, passed out in his own vomit, beside the Don River. Anything, everything, except “okay.”
And still, tonight, lost once again in the overwhelming contrast of the separate worlds I exist in – I saw in the eyes of my little boy, and heard in the sweet voice of innocent what does and will change lives. The belief that God has a better plan – & that the investment of whatever our hearts have to offer actually means something,,, even, perhaps especially, the prayers of a six year old God-send at bed time.
Jake went on to pray for his sister, and that the rain would stay away so we could play ball hockey the next day. And beyond all the realities I know, tonight I choose to believe a 15 year old in a hospital bed, two 14 year olds on Jarvis, and a 17 year old at the river – are okay. Tonight.